Contrary to common belief, Islam is not intolerant to other religions. It teaches its adherents to give mutual respect to, to be tolerant of and to have dialogue with people of other religions.
This can be clearly seen from the following example of the Prophet. When the Prophet reached Medina, it was also inhabited by some idolaters and Jews, who were in a minority. The Prophet decided that some form of law should be established so that there would be no misunderstanding or hostility of any sort, in the future between them and the Muslims. To solve this problem the Prophet of Islam issued a charter, commonly known as the Covenant of Medina. Since the Muslims were in the majority, the Prophet's position became that of a leader, or a head of state. In this capacity, he declared in this charter that all the inhabitants of Medina would enjoy equal rights. Everyone would be free to follow the religion and culture of his or her choice: the affairs of the adherents of each religion would be decided according to their belief.
Here I would like to quote an event in the life of the Prophet of Islam, which illustrates the true spirit of religious tolerance. One day a funeral procession was passing along a street in Medina. The Prophet, who was seated there at the time of its passing, stood up in respect to the deceased person. One of his companions said, ‘O Prophet, it was a funeral procession of a Jew!’ meaning that he should not demonstrate such respect for a non-Muslim. The Prophet replied: ‘Alaisat nafsan’: ‘Was he not a human being?’ This ‘humanitarian’ outlook was typical of the Prophet’s vision of life. He was able to see everyone basically as a human being. In this case, he discovered a commonality between himself and that Jewish person. He felt that just as he was a human being, so also was the Jew a human being. Just as God had created him, so also had God created the Jew. People may have their differences in belief, religion, culture, etc., but a common bond has to be discovered between them, which shows them all to be human beings.
This shows that Islam teaches tolerance and mutual respect. Realizing that religious differences have always existed between people, Islam also teaches us to have open dialogue with people of other religions. That is why inter-religious dialogue has been found in one form or the other since the beginning of Islam. In fact, fourteen hundred years ago, Prophet Mohammad held, what can be said as the first inter-faith dialogue in Medina when a three-religion conference—in modern terminology, a trialogue—to exchange views on religious issues took place between the followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Such attempts have repeatedly been made in history. The circumstances that unfolded following the Second World War led the Christian Church, in particular, to pay great attention to this matter. Through its continuous efforts dialogues of this nature are regularly being held in various countries, between Muslims and Christians in particular. I too have had the occasion to participate in several of these dialogues. These efforts have borne fruit, at least partially. For instance, it is as a result of these efforts that on the one hand, a Church has appeared once again in Ben Ghazi (Libya) while on the other, a mosque has been built in Rome for the first time in recent history.
If the Qur’an is consulted with this point in view, we find two main principles on which to hold dialogues. One is derived from this verse of the Qur’an:
Say: O People of Book, let us come to a word common to us and you that we will worship none but God (3:64).
The first and foremost principle for any dialogue held to discuss two or more religions is to strive to find a mutual basis for peaceful co-existence.
It is a fact that finding a common ground in secular matters is comparatively easy, for nothing is held as sacred in secularism. On the contrary everything acquires a sacred character in religion. That is why it becomes the most difficult task to find a basis for agreement in religious matters. However, despite all difficulties, we must continue our efforts, peacefully, irrespective of the results.
The second principle given by the Qur’an is purely a matter of pragmatism. That is, matters should be settled on practical grounds by avoiding their theoretical aspects. This principle is derived from this verse of the Qur’an:
To you your religion and to me mine (109:6).
This principle is generally referred to, in today’s context as religious co-existence. This means that whenever common grounds for agreement between two or more parties cannot be arrived at on an ideological basis, then the way of practical co-existence must be adopted.
The Community of Saint Egidio provides a good example of a continuing dialogue of this nature. This promotes interaction on a mass scale between adherents of different religions. In view of its vastness it may be rightly termed a super dialogue. The religious meet held under the auspices of the Community of Saint Egidio on a large scale each year makes a considerable contribution towards the achievement of the goal targeted by inter-religious dialogue.
Here I would like to add another point. We should not judge our efforts in this matter only by the results of meetings held in the name of formally arranged inter-religious dialogue. The truth is that “inter-religious dialogue” is not now limited to specific meetings held in the field of religion. It has rather assumed the form of a vast historical process—spontaneous, ongoing and perhaps never fully recorded. Negotiation in controversial matters is in tune with the spirit of the age. Today, it has permeated all walks of national as well as international life.
Modern industrial revolution and modern communication have added such vast dimensions to human relations that now the entire world has been converted into a global village. People of various persuasions are coming closer, on a universal scale. This interaction serves as an on-going dialogue of an informal nature. In this way with distances narrowed, the confrontational attitude now gives way to compromise.
Interaction in itself is an unproclaimed dialogue. When, as a result of circumstances, interaction between people of different persuasions increases, the purpose of the dialogue is served on its own.
Today, in educational institutions, offices, and factories, in travel, on playgrounds and in national and international activities, adherents of different religious traditions are meeting one another on a scale hitherto unwitnessed.
In the course of this continuous and vast interaction, for the first time in human history, people seem less like strangers to one another. A great gap has been bridged. People are learning one another’s languages. They are becoming familiar with one another’s culture. Making concessions to one another has become a need of the people themselves.
These factors have brought people closer right across the world. And it is a psychological truth that closeness and interaction in themselves serve the purpose of a practical dialogue.
Probably the most signal result of this historical process is that after a long intellectual struggle religious intolerance has been universally rejected. Religious intolerance has now been replaced with complete religious freedom. Today under auspices of the United Nations all the nations of the world have signed the universal declaration of human rights.
In accordance with this declaration religious freedom has been accepted as the natural birthright of all human beings. As opposed to practices in ancient times, no one now enjoys the right to persecute anyone on the basis of religion. This is the change, which has confined the sphere of religious difference to peaceful negotiation.
The effects of this can be seen in all walks of life, whether religious or secular. Every one of us, consciously or unconsciously, plays a part in making religious co-existence a reality.
Interfaith dialogue becoming a part of the historical process holds great promise for us, as in this case its success is assured. This is how every great revolution of history has got under way. Whenever a movement goes beyond the stage of individual or group efforts and joins the historical process itself, then the continuity of that movement is ensured and ultimately nothing can stop it reaching its destination.
In short, inter-religious dialogue had its beginnings in individual interaction, paving the way for discussions held in religious gatherings. Ultimately the time came when it became a part of a world movement. Now, if the course of events is any indication, God willing, that day too will dawn when the world is no more ridden with religious disputes, and we are able to live in a peaceful and harmonious world.
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